How will the Taliban govern Afghanistan? It can be up to us.
The US is out, but what the Biden administration and its Western allies do in the weeks and months ahead will have a big impact on whether the Central Asian country returns to the insular, medieval barbarism of the 1990s or modernizes it to accommodate majors international Norms.
The Taliban are anything but monolithic. They have common values: observance of Sharia law, resistance to foreign interference, the traditional Pashtun tribal code of the Pashtunwali. How these general values manifest themselves in specific guidelines and laws is interpreted through the movement’s fluid domestic politics.
Split according to regional and tribal lines, an alliance between anti-imperialist Afghan nationalists, who are motivated to protect the sovereignty of the country, and Islamic fundamentalists, some of whom are former soldiers and police officers of the Ashraf Ghani regime who defected under pressure, are the Taliban a highly decentralized movement whose desperate leadership could lean towards the hardliners or more liberal and modern.
Right now the Taliban are saying the right things and sending positive signals to keep girls’ schools open, to enable women to work, and amnesty for Afghans who worked for the NATO occupation forces. Apparently, the Taliban Shura gave its fighters an order to behave properly. Pictures from a Taliban press conference show that the presidential palace was neither destroyed nor looted. As a sign that these are not your father’s Taliban, senior Taliban official Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad sat for an interview with a television journalist whose face was revealed. Former President Hamid Karzai is safe despite staying in Kabul. While Western media made a lot of the Taliban firing their guns outside the airport, the shooting over people’s heads was clearly an attempt to control the crowd.
The Americans would not have voted for the Taliban to rule Afghanistan. But we don’t get a vote. What has seemed inevitable for anyone attentive for the past 20 years is an accomplished fact for the foreseeable future. The question now is: which Taliban will we, and especially the people of Afghanistan, have to deal with?
The Taliban, the French, British and other nations are allowing French, British and other nations to travel to the capital to escort their citizens to the airport for evacuation – who even risked their own lives evacuating Indian embassy staff – and who have left the old Afghan government unmolested Posters of the ousted President Ashraf Ghani and the legendary Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, a sworn enemy of the Taliban murdered by al-Qaida?
Or the thugs who tortured and murdered nine members of the Hazara minority and threatened the forced marriages of women?
The US and its Western allies face a choice. We can exert pressure through de facto economic sanctions, as the Biden government did, freezing $ 9 billion in Afghan government assets and cutting half a billion in International Monetary Fund funding, and by air strikes, another option the President has on the table. Alternatively, we can offer economic aid and diplomatic recognition. Or we can tailor a middle ground that ties rewards to our perception of the behavior of the new government.
Applying pressure would be a tragic mistake. It would strengthen the hand of the most radical Taliban hardliners at the expense of the relatively moderates, who want Afghanistan to look and feel more like Pakistan: undeniably Islamic in character, but connected to the outside world through trade and communication. You don’t want your opponent to feel like there’s nothing left to lose – so give them something to keep.
Think how the mistakes of American politicians in response to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran unnecessarily radicalized a revolutionary government.
Had President Jimmy Carter not admitted the deposed Shah to the United States for medical treatment, radical college students would not have occupied the US embassy in Tehran or taken 52 employees hostage. Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a temperamental man who rejected hot-headed tactics, was forced to side with the student radicals during the hostage crisis or risked being sidelined by his own insurrection. After the embassy was adopted, too much national pride was at stake for both parties to give in. The US and the new Iranian government got on their heels, leading to decades of misunderstandings and antagonism.
While a complete lack of pressure in view of the Taliban’s track record in the 1990s would be politically inedible and unrealistic, US politicians should practice a slight touch with the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Playing the tough guy strengthens the hand of hardliners who do not want education for girls or full participation for women in society and who would rather go back to the bad old days of stoning and the destruction of cultural treasures. At the moment, the relatively liberal wing of the Taliban rules. Let’s try to keep it that way.
Political cartoonist, columnist, and graphic novelist Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone wrong, “The Stringer,” which is now available to order. You can support Ted’s powerful political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.
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